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Denis Howard


Denis Howard was a significant figure in the history of the firm today known as King & Wood Mallesons. Born in 1932, Howard studied law at the University of Sydney and was admitted to practice as a solicitor in 1959. He completed his articles at George A. Raves & Poole and became a partner at M. Rosenblum & Co.; in 1964, thanks to a lucky connection with Bill Blanshard, he joined Stephen Jaques & Stephen as a solicitor in its property section. 

Howard had coupled his university studies and early legal career with involvement in bridge, of which he was a world-class player. He had won his first national title in 1957, and represented Australia at the Olympiads of 1964, 1968, and 1976. A six-time winner of the Australian Pairs Championship, and a twelve-time winner of the Interstate Teams, Howard retired from active competition in 1976. He nonetheless retained an involvement in bridge for years thereafter, as a president of the NSW Bridge Association, the Australian Bridge Federation, and the World Bridge Federation, and as a writer on the game for the National Times, the Sydney Morning Herald, and Australian Bridgemagazine, of which he was founding editor.

Howard became a partner of Stephen Jaques & Stephen in 1972 — at around the time, he said later, when ‘the firm began to wake up.’ This was a time when the market in Australia, and particularly in Sydney, was beginning to grow in leaps and bounds; and various traditions within the firm — such as an unofficial prohibition on Catholic partners, and the admission of partners based on their family name — began to give way. As one of the new partners admitted in this period, Howard helped lead Stephen Jaques & Stephen into an era of unprecedented ambition and vision. 

Stephen Jaques & Stephen merged with the Canberra-based Davies Bailey & Cater in 1974, opened an office in the United States in 1979, and merged with the Perth-based Stone James & Co. in 1982, at which point its name in the east was changed to Stephen Jaques Stone James. During this time, Howard became firmly established as one of the leading property lawyers in Sydney. He was responsible for the firm’s relationship with the AMP — a key client of the firm, and one of the most prestigious and well-known corporate entities in Australia — after the retirements of Sir Alastair Stephen and Brian Seton, and was a sound steward of that relationship. Howard’s significant matters included the AMP-Grace Bros. joint venture for the construction of the Macquarie Shopping Centre, and the AMP’s acquisition of the Australian portfolio of UK development company Crown Agents, at that time the country’s largest property transaction. He did work for the Ho family (owners of the Hyatt Hotel at Kings Cross), and worked on the purchase of the Abbey Group, which at that time was a significant real estate transaction.

Howard became chairman of the firm in 1984 with two priorities: to settle internal tensions (particularly around the merger between Perth and Sydney), and to ‘do something about Melbourne’. For the first he successfully sought agreement for the whole firm to be known as Stephen Jaques Stone James and a renewed integration of the offices; for the second, he drove plans to open an office in Melbourne. These plans were transformed, however, when the firm successfully negotiated a merger agreement with the leading Victorian firm Mallesons in the latter half of 1986. Howard played a key role in those negotiations, helping to settle the location of the firm’s management, the division of profits between the Sydney and Melbourne centres, and persuading his partners to accept that their name would go second to Mallesons’. Howard greeted the vote to merge with delight, and portended an approach that would become orthodox — that ‘we will be onefirm’. As he would tell colleagues at the first partners’ conference of the new firm, in August 1987, Mallesons Stephen Jaques would be ‘one firm, able to develop a corporate ethos, able to operate flexibly and be responsive to client needs and market forces without the inhibitions and hindrances of geographic economic rivalry.’

Howard had the immediate satisfaction of seeing other firms scramble to respond to this market-leading decision, and under his continued leadership the development of that integrated, one firm began. A new generation of partners were admitted, a maternity leave policy for partners was settled, and offices in Hong Kong and Taipei were opened. He retired as chairman in June 1988, and notwithstanding his return to practice thereafter played an important role coordinating support for the firm’s other, newly-opened offices in Asia. Howard retired as a partner of the firm on his fifty-ninth birthday, in 1991.

Highly regarded for his integrity, intellectual rigour, and legal skill, known for his modesty, fondness of Shakespeare, and sly humour, Howard was a significant figure in the history of the firm now known as King & Wood Mallesons. Many have called him the ‘father of the merger’; many more have lauded him as a generous colleague, a fine friend, and a good man.

This obituary was written by Patrick Mullins, on behalf of King & Wood Mallesons, and is reproduced here with permission.